Jiu-Jitsu Posture Breakdown: The Neck and Shoulders

Jiu-Jitsu Posture Breakdown: The Neck and Shoulders

By: Eugene Tsozik PT, DPT, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Purple Belt

If you look at a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, grappler, wrestler, Judoka, or athlete in general, you will see a certain posture. As a physical therapist, I have studied this posture and mechanics of the human body in depth breaking down the structure and function of every single joint and muscle while receiving my Doctorate in Physical Therapy. The field of study that I have spent a great part of my life educating myself in has been something that transcends not only the regular “9 to 5” desk job employee, but also is applicable to an elite level athlete.

The posture I usually see is forward head with the chin jetting out, forward rounded shoulders, flexed trunk (bent forward) with a rounded back, bent hips, bent knees, and body weight is on the toes. Stance may be with legs in a staggered position. In many sports this is considered the athletic stance/position.

In grappling, the head is forward, shoulders rounded for preparedness to reach out and grab the opponent or even push the opponent away for a sprawl. Hands out in front to fight off grips or protect against attacks. Trunk flexed forward with bent hips to have a lower center of gravity for ability to shoot in for the takedown and explode. In essence, you are spring-loaded with anticipation to explode forward for the attack or defend against an attack at any moment.

This is a complex topic, and the body does not work in independent chunks. The body works in a kinetic chain and if one area is not working properly, it can cause a compensatory pattern down the line from the head all the way down to the feet. A compensatory pattern is over-use of specific muscles which can overwhelm and overpower other muscles that should normally function during a specific task. This can also shut off certain muscles that should be working during a specific action. An example of this can be see when moving the arms overhead. If the shoulder joint is tight or the rotator cuff muscles are damaged, you will see a shrugging of the shoulders to help lift the arms which is an overuse of the upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles. This topic of posture and function of the human body is complex and has multiple layers to it.

I would like to simplify and go into some basic aspects that go into the neck and upper shoulders. The neck (cervical spine) has a natural curvature known as lordosis. This tends to be accentuated in grapplers as their heads are looking forward with the chin “jetted” out. The shoulders are rounded as to make yourself more narrow with the arms able to reach further out front. The shoulders have a tendency to be shrugged slightly towards the ears to protect the neck from chokes and even the jaw from punches. Here an example of a wrestling posture.

wrestling-posture

Image courtesy of provo.org

This leads essentially to muscle imbalances. Simply speaking, the muscles in the front of the neck get loose and weak, and the muscles in the back of the neck and toward the sides get tight and strong. This can lead to pain due to compression of the joint spaces in the cervical spine (neck), tension in the neck, headaches, decreased range of motion (ROM) and pain. The goal is always to maintain a symmetrical muscle balance and proper alignment throughout the body for optimal performance.

This is essentially known as “The Upper Crossed Syndrome,” developed by Dr. Vladimir Janda, a Czech neurologist and physiatrist. Here is the example we are discussing:

upper-crossed-syndrome

(www.jandaapproach.com)

A good theory to live by is strengthen the weak musculature and stretch the overly tight and strong ones. A few muscles that tend to get overly tight and allow for compensatory neck and shoulder patterns are the upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles. Essentially, these muscles attach at the back of the head or base of the skull, and to the top of the shoulder blades assisting in side bending the head (tilting the head to the side), looking up (cervical extension), rotation of the head (side to side turning movement), as well as moving the shoulder blades in various directions.

In addition to the neck musculature imbalances, shoulder and thoracic (mid back) spine issues come into play. The thoracic spine also gets an accentuated curvature known as kyphosis. With the rounded shoulders, the shoulder blades get pulled out to the sides (laterally), the muscles that stabilize the shoulder blades get loose and weak, the muscles in the front of the shoulders get tight and strong, and issues such as impingement (pinching or catching in the shoulders), as well as weakness in the rotator cuff musculature is more likely to develop.

Here is an example of the posture and tight muscles you will see in the neck and shoulders in regards to a Jiu-Jitsu posture and position:

sitting-guard1

Photo courtesy of www.grapplearts.com

In the next blog post, I will have a video demonstrating a basic warm up and stretches for the neck, shoulders, and chest to help alleviate these muscle imbalances and work on promoting a more balanced posture.

Thanks and check out my podcast for more BJJ insight and information at The Jiu-Jitsu Therapist Podcast on the site and subscribe on iTunes.